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House urns: A European Late Bronze Age Trans-cultural Phenomenon, BY S. SABATINI
Gotarc Series B, Humanistiska fakulteten vid Göteborgs universitet No 47; Göteborg 2007. 293 pages, 96 figures, 46 plates, black & white and colour. ISBN 978-91-85245-33-X. (SEK 150, 12.80)

This publication of a thesis submitted in Göteborg, Sweden is an interesting review of a well known Bronze Age phenomenon, the internment of some people in house-shaped urns. The author primarily focuses on the North European urns found in the Baltic and Harz/Elbe region, but compares their morphology and context to a group of hut urns found in central western Italy.

The book is well structured and clearly organised. The introduction, Part 1, gives an overview on existing literature on the subject. The impressive account of the research history points out that house urns were recognized early on as an interesting subject and led a number of scholars to engage in the ‘house urn question’, the question if and how the northern European house urns are linked to the Italian hut urns. A considerable number of objects are finds of early antiquarian interest and have been lost since their discovery, while others were damaged or destroyed during World War II. Only few of the remaining ones are on display in museums. Sabatini puts forward an interesting interpretation of this fact: as an ‘international’ phenomenon house urns were difficult to integrate into a past that has been seen and presented as ‘national’ for a long time.

The discussion of the geographic distribution of the house urns shows that they are usually found in cremation cemeteries near waterways, rivers or the Baltic Sea. Rarely more than one or two house urns are found per cemetery, and there is nothing unusual about their treatment in comparison to the other urns. Comparing the symbolic language of the time as it appears on rocks and razors, Sabatini does not find any overlaps—houses are generally not depicted in the Nordic Bronze Age. The comparison with architecture of the time is very brief and could certainly have been extended. The author comes to the conclusion that if house urns represent actual houses, they may have more in common with ritual buildings than the longhouses used for dwelling.

Part 2 introduces the theoretical background and methodology of the study. The primary concerns of the author are concepts like material culture as text, different scales of identity and gender. In Part 3, the analytical part, Sabatini ‘de-constructs’ the house urns into various elements and analyses them separately. She distinguishes between house shaped urns, door urns and face/door urns. While the door openings are the most important feature to understand the idea of the objects, other features such as roofs or pillars are locally influenced.

An important section is dedicated to the chronological and spatial context of the house urns, starting with a survey of finds discovered with the house urns and their dating. Most common are other pieces of pottery, in particular small conical vessels, jugs, and cups, bronzes such as razors, pins, tweezers, awls, buttons, bracelets, blades (of daggers and knives) and beads. All these are fairly common and do not differ from what would be expected in local burial contexts. The co-finds are the most important evidence for the house urns’ dating, which is given between 1000 and 800 BC, or end of period IV and period V. The earliest house urns seem to stem from the Baltic area, while the latest specimens are documented from the Harz/Elbe zone.

Anthropological data on the cremated remains is only available for 39 house urns. As far as sexing could be done, female (10) and male (11) cremations seem balanced, and despite the author’s previous statement suggesting a minimum age of four (Sabatini 2004), even young children have been found in house urns. The morphology and shape of the urns do not seem to correlate with sex or gender of the individuals, and only one multiple burial, a female with a male deposited on top, has been found. There is nothing unusual about the grave assemblages in which house urns form an integral part, nor anything unusual about the locations of depositions and the funerary rites involved. No connection between gender identity and house urns could be established. Unfortunately no other explanation is put forward as to why some individuals are singled out by their burial in house urns.

Part 4 compares the house urn phenomenon with Italian hut urns and face urns. A brief survey gives an overview of the characteristics of the Italian hut urns, primarily based on the work of Bartoloni et al. 1987. The most striking correlation between the house and hut urn phenomena is the chronological correspondence. Since it is well established that Bronze Age people were connected on many levels, we can assume some would have been exposed to the house urn concept. Sabatini suggests that an initial inspiration or idea (‘the house paradigm’) from the Italian peninsula led to the development of house urns in its distinct local expression in the north. Like some Italian specimens, the roofs of the house urns from Hoym C and Winningen are decorated with animal figurines on the roof, which may suggest that the house paradigm reached the Baltic area first and then spread southwards.

Bronze Age communication, exchange of goods and trade are more generally addressed in the following chapter, discussing models from far reaching trade connections to shared ideologies. The chapter on comparing house and face urns is based on Jutta Kneisel’s recent insights (Kneisel forthcoming). House and face urns represent a contemporary and related phenomenon. The face urns are much more common and distributed all over northern Europe, while clusters of face urns and house urns mutually exclude each other. The shape of the urn is not combined with the house, but with the body paradigm. It is unfortunate that these interesting chapters are kept very brief. I am sure readers would have liked to have more information on the related phenomena as well as more discussion of the comparison.

Hut, house and face urn are elusive as markers of individual identity, but they certainly are expressions of choice and thus form a part of the dynamics of identity negotiation. Sabatini argues that they may best be understood in terms if the Greek koine, the cultural sharing and mutual understanding on the basis of shared common values, without necessarily having the same cultural background. The symbolic language expressed by a variety of manifestations can be traced to a shared idea, which was never formalized into a uniform expression, but embedded into local contexts.

The text is followed by a catalogue listing all known 135 house urns, plus nine pieces that had been considered as house urns in previous literature. Not all of them could be investigated first hand for this study. On top of the classic description of each object with find circumstances and technical data, all available contextual data has been collected. The author has taken great care to bring all available data together, and especially the collection of contextual data is extremely valuable, since it had often been neglected in previous studies.

Grave goods found with the buried remains and anthropological data of the cremated bones are listed. The description of the technical data, however, such as colour, measurements and surface treatment is vague and subjective, and could probably have been standardized in a better way for future comparison. Although some size measurements are given in the catalogue, they rarely appear in the text and have not been analysed or interpreted. It would, for example, have been useful to give measurements of the door openings, or discuss where the door is located in relation to the rest of the urn.

A cross-referencing system by number and chapter makes it easy to connect the catalogue with the text, and thorough listings of previous literature and archive references make it easy to trace observations and ideas by other authors. Appendix 1 by Maria Vretemark is a report on cremated bones, appendix 2 by Inga Ullén and Anders Nord report about colour traces found on the house urns. Both appendices are in Swedish, which does not matter too much, since their results are integrated in catalogue and text.

Overall this book is an interesting compendium. For the first time, all contextual data about house urns has been synthesized. But the book will not only be useful for further studies, but tackles theoretical issues of great importance. Sabatini explains how supra-local phenomena can be shared over wide areas of quite different cultural backgrounds, and shows how the past can be a place of different forms of identity with different forms of borders and relations.

Katharina C. Rebay
University of Cambridge


Bartoloni, G., Buranelli, F., D’Atri, V., and De Santis, A., 1987. Le urne a capanna rinvenute in Italia. Archaeologica 68, Tyrrhenica I. Roma: Giorgio Bretschneider.
Kneisel, J. forthcoming. Anthropomorphe Gefäße in Nord- und Mitteleuropa während der Bronze- und Eisenzeit. Studien zu den Gesichtsurnen—Kontaktzonen und sozialer Kontext. Universitätsforschungen zur prähistorischen Archäologie. Bonn: Rudolf Habelt.
Sabatini, S. 2004. ‘A house for everyone?’ Considerations upon age and gender and the Late Bronze Age Nordic house urns from Sweden and Denmark. Ethnographisch-Archäologische Zeitschrift 45, 421–43.

Review submitted: May 2008

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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